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Optimism vs. Hope

This week I have the happy task of preparing a sermon on the very seasonally appropriate theme of hope. “Hope” is one of those words that is overused, abused, and reduced to marketing slogans or political campaigning, but which is nonetheless a vitally important word to retain. In my reading, I continue to make my through Miroslav Volf’s Against the Tide and was intrigued to come across his distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism, according to Volf, is based on “extrapolative cause and effect thinking” whereby we “draw conclusions about the future on the basis of experience with the past and the present.” Hope, on the other hand, is based not on situation-dependent possibilities or predictive accuracy, but on the character and trustworthiness of God.

So it would seem—at least according to Volf—that it is quite possible to be hopeful but not optimistic. Here’s a quote:

What we need… are not stories of optimism but narratives of hope. On a psychological level, optimism is about “feeling good” about yourself because you are “the capital of the future.” The obverse of such optimism is the denial of the horrors of history and disregard for ruined lives. Authentic Christian hope, on the other hand, is about the promise that the wrongs of the past can be set aright and that the future need not be a mere repetition of the past.

To hope does not mean to dream ourselves into a different reality, but to embrace the promise that this reality, suffused with suffering, will be transformed into God’s new world. We must acknowledge the underside of history; otherwise, we will never be redeemed. The good news is that those who hope can acknowledge the dark side of their history because the divine promise frees them from captivity to the past.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think his definition of hope means that the hope in liberal theology is optimism, because liberal theology begins with experience rather than knowledge of the character and trustworthiness of God.

    In liberal theology we gain an understanding of God through experience and find hope, or not, in the same experience. That is optimism I suppose. I think I would separate optimism as a mood from the hope that is associated with human experience in liberal theology. At the same time, I think hope in liberal theology is optimistic in mood.

    So, I guess I don’t know what to say about Volf’s hope. It seems to depend on a theology that is not liberal.

    November 25, 2010
    • The more I’ve reflected on this quote, the more I wonder if Volf might be guilty of just a bit of overstatement here. I think there is at least some “extrapolative cause-and-effect thinking” involved in hope as well, if only because Christian hope is based on historical events. I also think that human experience can and does point to, if not define or somehow concretize the content of what we hope for. Peter Berger has done some good thinking on this in A Rumor of Angels where he talks about the human need for order and hope as a “signal of transcendence.”

      Having said all that, I do think there remains a qualitative difference between optimism and hope. Hope—at least of the “ultimate” kind—still comes from the outside, as something that could not be derived exclusively from the possibilities of the past and the present.

      November 26, 2010
      • Tyler Brown #

        Hope can be just be something as simple as a statistical unlikelihood where an optimistic outlook is when there is a greater chance.

        As the statistical chance shrinks, what was once maybe optimism shrinks to hope… such as say the ability of humans to find a solution to climate change.

        November 26, 2010
      • Sounds plausible on one level, Tyler. Although I think that the content of the Christian hope has always had roughly the same “statistical chance” :).

        (Having said that, some in the early church clearly expected the imminent realization of the Christian hope. In that sense, perhaps, the longer hope is deferred the more pronounced the gap between “optimism” and “hope” might be?)

        November 26, 2010
      • Tyler Brown #

        That last part would make sense, considering as each passing day could potential increase doubt.

        November 27, 2010
      • The potential is certainly there. Although if history teaches us anything it is that hope is a persistent thing indeed.

        November 27, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: Hope—at least of the “ultimate” kind—still comes from the outside, as something that could not be derived exclusively from the possibilities of the past and the present.

        Yes, that is a good way to put it.

        According to Elie Wiesel, Rebbe Barukh of Medzebozh said, “To attain truth, man must pass forty-nine gates, each opening onto a new question. Only to arrive finally before the last gate, the last question, beyond which he could not live without faith.”

        Hope depends on such truth.

        November 27, 2010
      • It certainly does. What a great image!

        November 27, 2010
  2. Great quote Ryan, thanks!

    November 26, 2010
  3. I really like this idea of hope not being optimism. I can identify with that. The gospel, the good news, is not dependant on me feeling good about my present, past or future. We serve a God who is trustworthy, faithful, just, loving, and gracious. I guess I like that kind of theology.

    November 27, 2010

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